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fear and loathing on the merger trail

By Jamie Zawinski (23-Nov-98) is a strange thing. Mozilla is an open source project that sprung fully formed from the belly of the beast. Today, we're hearing the grunting and shuffling of the mating dance, as that lumbering beast joins with another. And many people are worried whether our little lizard is going to get trampled underneath.

The thing to keep in mind here is that is not Netscape, and never has been. This is something that many people don't understand, or don't believe, but as we described in our original mission statement, the Mozilla Organization has a different agenda from Netscape. We were chartered to guide the open development of the Mozilla browser, and that is what we have done.

But we have realized that there is something about the nature of that many people miss: is actually a very small number of people. We are three full time staff, and a handful of volunteers. And we mostly do not code. There are hundreds of people doing coding work on Mozilla: but those people do not work for Most of those people work for Netscape, though a growing number of them work for other companies, or contribute on their own time (for example, the Autoconf and GTK-FE projects were almost entirely done by non-Netscape employees, and the XPFE effort has a huge amount of outside involvement, to name just a few.)

We few at are guides; you hackers are many, and your decisions are what really count. We at try to provide guidance, mediation, and infrastructure, but the fact is that the real direction of the Mozilla project is dictated by the people who are actually coding it. That's all that matters: when the rubber hits the road, what does the program do? It does what the hackers working on it have made it do.

Some people have the impression that the Mozilla agenda is set by Netscape, and to some extent that is true: because Netscape is paying more than a hundred people full-time salaries to work on the Mozilla code base -- and to give their code away.

In addition, Netscape is funding, those of us providing management and infrastructure and tools to this large, distributed software project.

So, with Netscape being acquired, what does that mean to Hopefully, it will mean nothing: hopefully, AOL didn't buy Netscape with the intention of turning Netscape into something that it is not; it's hard to imagine that they would spend $4 billion dollars on Netscape just to throw away the client.

So, assuming that they still want to have a Netscape Navigator, it is not unreasonable to assume that they will adopt the same attitude that Netscape has: that open source works, and that the best way to have a top-of-the-line web browser is to keep it open.

But let's think about some worst-case scenarios. Let's think about the nightmares. What if AOL hates "open source"? What if they want to undo everything we've done, and make Mozilla be evil and proprietary again? What if they just think that browsers are a waste of time, and that they should just use MSIE forevermore?

Well, they simply cannot undo what has been done. The Mozilla code is out there, and it cannot be recalled. It has been distributed under an open source license, and nobody can ever take that away from you. Ever.

If AOL hated open source, or didn't want to build their own browser, what they could do is fail to contribute to Mozilla in the future. They could stop paying those hundred-plus full-time salaries, and they could stop funding those of us who are's full-time employees.

But be clear on this: the agenda of Mozilla is set by those who contribute to it. If you believe that is just a smokescreen, that the organization exists only to swindle you out of your hard work for the benefit of some shambling inhuman beast of a corporation, then don't contribute to it. Take the source code, and build your own browser based on it. Fork the tree. Do what's right.

That has always been your prerogative, since the day the source was released.

And it hasn't happened yet -- because has played straight with you. We have done what we said we were doing, and we have managed this project as a real cooperative effort, like other successful open source projects.

Netscape realized that this is how it had to work. That is why Netscape gave us the permission to charter the way we did, and why Netscape has continued to give an unprecedented level of autonomy.

Hopefully those who hold the purse strings in the future will take an equally enlightened view. It is in their best interest to do so, and we must hope that they realize that.

There are some vocal contingents on the net who hold a lot of animosity toward AOL for one reason or another. There are other contingents who hold similar animosity toward Netscape; perhaps for similar reasons, perhaps for different. But in the end, what does it matter? Either you get a good open source web browser out of the deal, or you don't. Why should it matter who does the work? The work should speak for itself, and be judged on its own merits. Anyone who is willing to contribute to the Mozilla project should be welcomed with open arms. is not Netscape. And it is not now, nor will it ever be, AOL.

Update: 24-Nov-98
The Day After.

My main point in writing the above was to point out to people that the Mozilla project is bigger than Netscape, and the destinies of the two are no longer inextricably tied together. To illustrate this, I talked about worst-case scenarios, in an attempt to show that they really weren't as bad as some people might expect them to be.

In case I wasn't clear enough, I didn't really expect this to be a worst-case scenario. And thankfully, today, we have some statements from Netscape and AOL executives to back that up!

  • In Mozilla Stomps Ahead Under AOL, from Wired News, you can read the following:

    Netscape will continue to support its quirky open-source browser development program after the sale of the company to AOL, a Netscape executive said this morning.


    Netcenter chief Mike Homer said that the company would continue the program, and that the volunteer Mozilla team has already contributed changes to the Netscape's core Communicator browser.


    We are committed to maintaining continuity at Netscape, [AOL's] Case said. Netscape will remain in separate headquarters, operating in Mountain View, California. Of course, we will continue to develop and promote Netscape's browser -- especially in context of [the Netcenter] portal, Case added.

    Mozilla Stomps Ahead Under AOL

    (But who are you calling quirky?)

  • In We Are Not Netscape, from Wired News, this page is quoted, along with more from Mike Homer:

    When Netscape's Homer was asked for further comment, he said that while he had not read Zawinski's remarks, he agreed with his characterization of Mozilla's mission.

    Mozilla is larger than Netscape, and that was its intention, Homer said. [Mozilla] is essentially a collaborative project that was sponsored by a commercial entity.

    The people that staff are Netscape employees, he added. The code that was contributed was code previously owned by Netscape. However, it's also true that that code base will take on life of its own someday. We Are Not Netscape

    (Um, someday? I guess we need to show Mike some more recent demos!)

  • In AOL to keep Netscape browser wrapped, from C/NET, we see some speculation about AOL and MSIE, but also this important detail:

    Communicator's development and distribution efforts are likely to remain relatively unchanged, according to executives. AOL will continue to promote the Netscape browser through Netscape's Netcenter portal site. Netscape's organization -- responsible for shepherding the worldwide community development effort of Communicator's open source code -- will continue operating as it does today, the executives added.

    AOL to keep Netscape browser wrapped
  • And finally, in Thanks, Mozilla, also from Wired News, you can read a nice, nostalgic look back at Mozilla's roots.

Update: 25-Nov-98